After the defeat at Westport on October 23, 1864, Major-General Sterling Price was able to extract his Army of Missouri and begin a retreat southward. The Federals pursued, of course. Unlike some campaigns of the Civil War, the pursuit was aggressive and actually landed some blows on the retreating enemy. Three in fact came in a series of engagement on October 25.
Price had in mind the capture of Fort Scott, Kansas (correctly re-capture as Price had captured the post in 1861), which promised more supplies to add to his take from Missouri. So heading south from the Kansas City area, Price turned his forces south-westerly across the state line.
This course took Price over several tributaries to the Osage River, each high from recent rains. To move his wagon train, Price had to carefully move across fords on those watercourses while fending off the Federal pursuit. That need to protect the wagons lead to a series of engagements which were among the war’s largest cavalry battles.
Major-General Alfred Pleasonton’s provisional cavalry division pressed south after the battle of Westport. On the morning of October 25, Pleasonton attacked Price’ rear guard, under Major-General James Fagan, at the crossings over Marais des Cygens. With artillery support, Pleasonton’s lead brigades drove the Confederates away from their camps. Pleasonton then pushed out Colonel John Philips’ brigade in pursuit. Philips caught up with Fagan’s division, now reinforced with Major-General John Marmaduke’s division, six miles south protecting the crossing over Mine Creek. Though outnumbered and facing a line reinforced with artillery, Philips had one great advantage – his force was organized. With that, Philips held his ground and triggered one of the largest cavalry engagements of the war at just before 11:00 a.m.:
It was manifest that the enemy was preparing to charge by advancing in double column from his right and left center. At this juncture Benteen’s brigade came up on my left,, and as soon as his advance regiment got into position I began the attack. Everything depended on striking the enemy before his dispositions for a charge were completed. [Colonel Frederick] Benteen’s brigade came down on the enemy’s right handsomely and fiercely. Two pieces of our artillery came up and opened fire. My brigade was precipitated on the enemy’s center and left with tremendous energy, when the fighting became general and terrific. The impetuosity of the onset surprised and confounded the enemy. He trembled and wavered and the wild shouts of our soldiers rising above the din of battle told that he gave way. With pistol we dashed into his disorganized ranks and the scenes of death was as terrible as the victory was speedy and glorious. Major-General Marmaduke, Brigadier-General Cabell, some colonels, several line officers, four guns, one stand of colors, and a large number of prisoner were captured by this brigade. The ground in our front was strewn with the enemy’s dead, dying, and wounded. Every gun the enemy pointed at us fell into our hands. Our advantage was followed up as energetically as possible, making the rout complete. This successful charge produced great consternation and demoralization among the enemy, as evidenced by his rapid flight, the destruction of much of his train, the disgorging and scattering of his ill-gotten plunder.
Some attribute the success of Philips and Benteen to their trooper’s armament – carbines compared to the Confederate muzzle-loaders. I would submit, while firepower was important, the key to this engagement was leadership from the regimental level up. While Federal officers were conspicuous and successful in their efforts to urge the troops forward, the Confederate officers were unable to do so with their commands. Price observed,
… I met the divisions of Major-Generals Fagan and Marmaduke retreating in utter and indescribable confusion, many of them having thrown away their arms. They were deaf to all entreaties or commands, and in vain were all efforts to rally them.
In the confusion, the Federals captured Marmaduke and two of Fagan’s brigade commanders. They also picked up almost all of the Confederate artillery. Price now faced a situation beyond just “deteriorated.” His command had collapsed. The only element left to throw into the fray was Brigadier-General Joseph Shelby’s division. With two of his brigades, Shelby put up a delaying action then fell back to the Little Osage River. There, in position on high banks, managed to parry the Federal thrust for the moment. As he later wrote, “All that men could do had been done.” After an hour fight there, Shelby fell back.
Now Pleasonton brought up two fresh brigades under Brigadier-General John McNeil to pick up the pursuit. But the aggressive pattern that carried the morning did pass forward with McNeil. He followed the routed Confederates for several miles. Colonel Sidney Jackman’s brigade, the only fresh (relatively speaking) Confederate force, made a charge to by valuable time. Finally at the crossing of Marmiton River (Marmeton River today), McNeil confronted what he thought was a rallied Confederate line. It was the remains of Shelby’s and Fagan’s divisions, bolstered by unarmed men to make an appearance of strength. McNeil was content to shell the Confederate line from across the river until nightfall.
For the day, Pleasonton’s cavalrymen harried Price’s column over four crossings. The action at every point was fought mostly by cavalry, with a handful of artillery pieces playing in. Summarizing the day, Lieutenant-Colonel Lauchlan MacLean, providing Price’s itinerary, wrote:
Marmaduke, Cabell, and Slemons taken prisoners; 5 pieces of artillery captured, and the morale of the army ruined. Everything hurried on, a mass of confusion, from which it took every exertion to redeem it… twenty-eight miles.
As many of the wagon teams were broken down from two days hard marching, that night Price burned what he could not move further. By crossing the Marmiton River, Price had returned to Missouri. But he was in the southwestern part of the state where forage was short. The loss of supplies meant the army had to take a round about march to return south.
Pleasonton reported 1,000 prisoners including the senior officers mentioned above. But for all that, the victory was not complete. And nor could the Federal cavalry follow up the next day. As Pleasonton reported,
The exhausted condition of my men and horses, having marched near 100 miles in two days and a night, and fighting the last thirty miles, required that I should proceed to the vicinity of Fort Scott for forage and subsistence.
Pleasonton would complain that Major-General Samuel Curtis failed to follow up the advance, or else Price’s command would have ended right there. However, Brigadier-General James Blunt was still in pursuit and have one more go at Price before all was said and done.
Price’s Army of Missouri was, for all practical purposes, broken on October 25, 1864. But it still existed as an organization. Perhaps that was the biggest outcome of the campaign from a military standpoint. In Price’s ragged ranks were former guerrilla fighters who’d flocked to the army in the early days of the campaign. Now those men were making their way south and out of Missouri.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part I, Serial 83, pages 341, 352, 637, and 646.)